Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant / Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet / Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Callum Keith Rennie, Judy Davis and Kyle Catlett
Dr. Claire Spivet: Beware of mediocrity; it is the fungus of the mind.
Before I go into my THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET review, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have been borderline obsessed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movies ever since I first saw DELICATESSEN at TIFF in 1991. Its Dali-esque production design and macabre humour were unlike anything I had seen in a movie from France. Ten years later, when the director returned to TIFF with the surrealistically delicious and gleeful AMELIE, I swore, from then on, I will always be a passenger on whatever trip Jeunet wants to take me on. And what a trip his latest movie is!
Living in a remote ranch in Montana with his insect obsessed mother, Dr. Claire Spivet (Helena Bonham Carter), cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie), older sister Gracie and fraternal twin brother Layton, 10-year-old T.S. (the astonishing Kyle Catlett) is beyond precocious. He is scientifically gifted and invents a perpetual motion machine. So impressive is this discovery that the Undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institute (Judy Davis) awards T.S. (not knowing his age) with the prestigious Baird Prize. Leaving a note to his family that only says he is going away and lugging a suitcase overflowing with his belongings, T.S. hops on a freight train and starts his long journey to Washington DC to accept the award.
Having lost his dream pet project of filming THE LIFE OF PI to Ang Lee due to budget restrictions, Jeunet spectacularly captures, in breath-taking 3D, the province of Alberta which, once again, reprises the role of Montana as it did masterfully in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Moreover, the 3D effects are not gimmicky at all. They are a natural extension of Jeunet’s approach to filmmaking and to the elements of this story; it’s a marriage made in movie heaven. Not only is this film visually arresting (I strongly recommend that Thomas Hardmeier start writing his Oscar acceptance speech for Best Cinematography), THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET seamlessly takes every emotional element that makes a movie a classic and puts an inimitable spin on it. The story is unique as it blends slapstick humour with heart wrenching pathos, from the sight gags and witty repartee to tragic events that take us to places and situations unimaginable.
Equally compelling are the performances by every single actor in every single scene. Carter is revelatory. As she is fluent in French in real life, I suspect she found a special bond when communicating with the director in his native language. Claire Spivet is flighty (she can’t find a toaster that she won’t burn to smithereens), ferocious when it comes to her children’s safety, and an adoring mother and wife. Davis always excels when she portrays overwhelmed characters and she’s in her element here, illuminating the screen with a neurotic, captivating frenzy. And then there’s Catlett in the title role. I will go on record now and proclaim that Catlett’s feature film debut in THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET is the best screen performance by a young actor since Patty Duke in THE MIRACLE WORKER. He’s adept at comedy, whether it’s physical or cerebral, and instinctive in the action sequences. How such a young boy can completely dominate every scene with such innate precision and intelligence is mind boggling. Actually, it tethers on incomprehensibility!
It’s only four months into the year, but THE YOUNG AND PRODIGIOUS T.S. SPIVET is my official benchmark for all films that follow to live up to. The final scene, when T.S. addresses the crowd at the Smithsonian Institute is sheer, emotionally draining genius. Even now as I write, days after seeing this movie, and remembering its sheer, emotionally draining genius, I have goosebumps.